Twenty-one meetings later, we have finished our first week in Kampala. Between the jams (aka traffic jams) and the double bookings, the week was a whirlwind of activity and learning. Many of our meetings started late and ran long and when we emerged, David, our driver greeted us with the friendly refrain, “I think it must have been an interesting meeting” – and they were! We have been surprised and flattered with how many people in the NGO, solar and health care communities have been willing to meet with us and share their experiences. The Ugandan hospitality, openness and generosity have made for an incredible experience.
Our first day started with a calm breakfast at our new home, The Mamba Point Guesthouse. Olivia checked her email and to her surprise, our first meeting was in 30 minutes! The calm morning turned into a flurry of activity. Mike and Olivia ran down the hill to meet with a key leader at the country’s premier hospital, Mulago Hospital. Fortunately, they avoided getting hit by the craze of the cars and boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) but did have to scale one, small wall (much to the amusement of passerby’s, Olivia was wearing a dress).
The meeting at Mulago was enlightening. Many of the hypotheses about the solar suitcase and WE CARE Solar were immediately touched upon by the doctor. He acknowledged that taken as a whole, the challenge of maternal health can be overwhelming, but you need to start somewhere. He shared with us a parable:
A man was walking down a beach and saw thousands of starfish washed up on the shore. The sun was rising and he knew they would die soon, so he started to throw them back in the ocean, one by one. Someone stopped him and said, “What are you doing? You’ll never make a difference.” The man looked back and held up one starfish and said, “I made a difference to this one.”
With the upcoming Millennium Development Goals deadline to improve quality of life and care in developing countries by 2015, maternal health has been cast into the spotlight and the Solar Suitcase could play a key role in the solution.
Over the coming days, we learned more about how different NGOs operate in Uganda and the importance of community ownership for long-term sustainability. Countless stories were recalled of a well-meaning organization that dropped off equipment or donated supplies only to find a heap of garbage upon their return. How can we help a community take ownership of a solar suitcase to ensure its maintenance, sustainability and safety from theft?
To complement the health-focused meetings, we have also spoken with solar importers and social enterprises distributing solar power. As a country, Uganda has had an inauspicious start with solar as the country received many substandard products that quickly failed. Overcoming misperceptions about the expense and utility of solar will be a challenge, but there are many organizations willing to partner to develop a better reputation. One surprising discovery was the government does not impose tariffs on solar or solar-related products, which creates an ideal environment for the solar suitcase.
And the most important theme from the week was Uganda is a big country lacking in infrastructure, so the key to success for WE CARE Solar will be finding a strong partner to help in the distribution, training and maintenance of the solar suitcase. The challenge will be to find an organization that shares WE CARE Solar’s commitment to maternal health and long term quality. Given the enthusiasm in many of our meetings, we hope to identify some strong candidates.
Despite the heavy meeting schedule, our week wasn’t all work. We visited the craft market, the Uganda Museum and the Parliament of the Buganda Kingdom. We also celebrated Rubbee’s first wedding anniversary (sorry, Dan).
And then came the weekend…